With Barrasso absent, U.S. Senate challengers square off

Casper Star-Tribune (August 2)

Sen. John Barrasso’s podium stood empty at a debate in Casper last Wednesday as four contenders vied for votes to wrest his job: a Home Depot employee, a former priest, a businessman and a former judge.

Barrasso declined to attend the debate because the Senate has extended its session into August. In an opening statement provided by his wife Bobbie, Barrasso said he wanted to be present but his first priority was doing the job Wyoming had elected him to do. He also provided a list of what he’s helped accomplish in D.C., from passing the recent Republican tax cut to upcoming fight to get Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh confirmed.

The 11-year incumbent’s absence, however, provided easy ammunition for the Senate hopefuls, particularly self-titled Reagan republican Dave Dodson, who fired quick and often at the sitting senator.

Dodson threw a barb at Barrasso immediately, kicking off a polished performance throughout the night. The senator spent the morning in D.C. hearings to fill Environmental Protection Agency positions more than a year and a half into the Trump presidency, a fact that Dodson said reveals the problem with Washington.

“The real story tonight is that our senator is missing,” he said, arguing that Congress, and particularly Barrasso, has failed to do its job.

Charlie Hardy also dug at the senator. This is Hardy’s third attempt to represent Wyoming in Washington. He ran for Sen. Mike Enzi’s seat in 2014 and for the House in 2016.

The former Roman Catholic priest has titled himself as a Wyoming version of Bernie Sanders and said health care is being treated like a commodity instead of a human right.

“We have so many people going bankrupt because they can’t pay hospital bills,” Hardy said. “Dr. Barrasso hasn’t done anything in these eleven years to alleviate the situation of health in Wyoming.”

Hardy stopped short of selling a single-payer system but alluded to the U.S.’s unique position as a modern country that fails to provide health care to its people.

A newcomer to politics, 33-year-old Anthony Van Risseghem of Cheyenne left the Barrasso barbs to his older peers focusing instead on the need for a strong voice for constitutionally-protected rights serving in Washington. Risseghem is a sales associate at Home Depot. If elected he would be the youngest member of the U.S. Senate.

“They are encroaching on upon us, taking our rights away,” he said of the federal government. He called the Affordable Care Act a “sham” and criticized the failings of Medicare.

Candidates agreed on some heated topics, including the value of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which the president has criticized.

John Holtz, the former judge, said he’s seen first-hand the importance of an alliance when facing enemies like Russia and China.

“You do not want to weaken NATO,” he said.

Holtz threw a few wrenches into the debate, deviating from agreements among the other candidates. In a question regarding the Endangered Species Act, he said that some species blink out and others survive. The bedrock conservation law is probably unnecessary, he said.

Barrasso has recently proposed a broad overhaul of the federal law that has so troubled Wyoming in the past, with support from Wyoming Governor Matt Mead.

The four hopefuls agreed that Social Security needed to be protected and was currently at risk. Risseghem said the program should be set up like a 401k rather than a pool so that individuals keep the money they put in. Holtz said illegal immigrants shouldn’t be collecting benefits.

Dodson flared up on the subject of social security, asking voters to look at his website where he has a plan to address the system before it fails.

“The fuse is short and the spark hits the bomb in 17 years,” he said. “The math is clear and we have a Senate that is passing tax cuts and spending plans.”

The candidates fell into two camps Wednesday night. Risseghem and Holtz promised to fight in Washington. Holtz said he would chew up garlic and get in Democrats’ face if given the opportunity, which won some chuckles from the crowd. His call for bounty hunters to track down immigrants that have crossed into the U.S. illegally drew laughter.

In contrast, Dodson and Hardy both argued that the only way forward for the country was collaboration across the aisle.

Hardy, the former priest, said the reason he was running was he believed in helping people. The division in the U.S. on issues such as immigration had driven him back to the Gospels, he said.

“The words of Jesus haunt me,” the former priest said before quoting Christ. “’I was a stranger and you did not take me in.’”

Dodson likewise derided the animosity of politics in the U.S. today and ended the night with a rousing statement on the need to come together as a nation.

“We are divided over ourselves,” he said. “We owe it to our children and the people who shed their blood for this country to come back together again … as one nation, under God, indivisible.”

The call for unity drew rich applause from an otherwise muted audience.